Being flip about the significant defect that undermines The Prom would hardly be fair to the show’s proficient company of veteran and youthful performers, its big-league creative team, its vast roster of producers, and most of all, to our readers.
So, for starters, let’s respectfully view this newest Broadway production, which bowed Thursday at the Longacre Theatre, as a good idea for a musical gone terribly wrong.
It’s reported that theater executive Jack Viertel read about a flyover country incident of 2010, when a high school prom was cancelled after a student wanted to bring her girlfriend to it and even wear a tuxedo. Later, a group of parents threw a prom on their own and did not invite the couple.
Viertel’s notion to expand this scenario into a musical was spinning the story around several washed-up Broadway stars who inject themselves into just such a brouhaha to amplify their celebrity.
Thus The Prom, with music by composer Matthew Sklar (Elf and The Wedding Singer), a book co-written by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Chad Beguelin (Aladdin), and its production staged and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, whose credits among other hits include Mean Girls and The Book of Mormon.
Their musicalization of Viertel’s concept begins with the opening night party of a flop Broadway musical headlined by Dee Dee (Beth Leavel) and Barry (Brooks Ashmanskas). In the wake of their show’s demise, these frayed co-stars and two other has-been troupers, Trent (Christopher Sieber) and Angie (Angie Schworer), resolve to resurrect their careers by becoming celebrity activists.
They latch on to noisily righting “a safe, non-violent, high-profile, low risk injustice” by trundling off to a small town in Indiana to vociferously, if cluelessly, trumpet their support for Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) an earnest honor student and lesbian who wants to—well, see the story noted several paragraphs above. That’s the first act for The Prom.
The second act sees these narcissistic Broadway bumblers try to fix what they wrecked for Emma. During this process, the four showbiz characters each deliver a big, fat number keyed to the talents of their respective interpreters: Angie’s “Zazz” is a song-n-dance lesson in Bob Fosse attitude. Dee Dee’s “The Lady’s Improving” is a belted aspirational solo. Trent leads the local kids through “Love Thy Neighbor,” a hallelujah-type rouser with tambourines. “Barry Is Going to Prom” is a giddy romp by the aforesaid gay gent celebrating his delayed teen rite of passage.
Of course, the self-involved show-offs eventually will learn the error of their thinking and a happy ending awaits long-suffering Emma, who meanwhile is blessed with a pair of sincerely pretty songs in “Dance With You” and “Unruly Heart.”
So what’s so wrong about all that? The fatal flaw with The Prom regards its tone.
The Prom has been facetiously crafted as a cartoon type of ha-ha musical in the manner of Something Rotten! and Gettin’ the Band Back Together. That’s all very well until its silliness hits an iceberg in the serious issue of homophobia and LGBTQ discrimination. There is a jarring dislocation whenever these Sardi’s caricatures repeatedly collide with the relatively realistic likes of Emma, her closeted sweetheart (Isabelle McCalla), a nice high school principal (Michael Potts), and the rigid leader of the local PTA (Courtenay Collins).
Everyone gamely and capably projects their characters, especially Leavel and Ashmanskas, who probably spit out nails after chewing so much scenery in their outsized roles as Dee Dee and Barry. Their fearlessly over-the-top performances, along with an assortment of showbiz gags in the amusing script and Beguelin’s lyrics, propelled by Sklar’s mostly upbeat tunes and plenty of fast-moving flurries of athletic dancing choreographed by Nicholaw, represent Broadway musical comedy in full-flowered frivolity.
But such a bright approach in style does not befit the darker story about the ruthless exploitation of a woeful situation.
Oh, well, we are all living through rather crude times. Possibly spectators will overlook this crass aesthetic disconnect and just go with the snappy flow of Nicholaw’s slick production. If some clothes appear ill-favored, there is nothing wrong with Scott Pask’s nimble settings, Natasha Katz’s dynamic lighting and Brian Ronan’s crisp sound design.
Still, watching it unfold so blithely troubles me. The Prom undeniably is entertaining, but as a lyric in a Forbidden Broadway might describe this frisky though significantly misguided musical: The Prom is a bomb with aplomb.
The Prom opened November 15, 2018, at the Longacre Theatre. Tickets and information: theprommusical.com